Jupiter Ascending Review

The Wachowski’s have had an … interesting career. They had a dynamite blockbuster in The Matrix, a movie which is still enjoyable a decade and a half later (wait, seriously? OK, then). But they’ve followed it up with unimpressive results. The first Matrix sequel did well, mainly because of the name, but got mediocre reviews. I enjoyed parts of it, but it was a bit long-winded. The third was lambasted and deservedly so. I haven’t watched it since my first viewing in the theater and don’t really feel a pressing need to see it again.

Speed Racer has its defenders but is generally poorly regarded. I have not seen it. Cloud Atlas did not do well even though, in my opinion, it was an excellent movie (my opinion has improved since that review with a second and third viewing).

Which brings us to Jupiter Ascending, one of this year’s biggest flops. Jupiter was flogged by critics and it’s not hard to see why. It spends enormous amounts of time on exposition. The dialogue is frequently poor. The plot is complex and confusing and turns on two nearly identical threads. And it ends on a weird note, with Spoiler Warning Jupiter returning to her grungy job while massive crimes against humanity continue across the Galaxy.

However, despite all this and despite the negative reviews, I did actually find a lot to enjoy about the movie. The visuals are simply gorgeous. It’s not just that the effects are great, it’s that they are used well. This feels like a real fleshed out universe. The actors do their best with the material (with the exception of Redmayne). The ideas driving the plot are original and the plot unfolds like a poor man’s Dune, with plenty of intricate politics and personal strife. There’s a really nice sequence where Jupiter goes through the Galactic bureaucracy that gives you a feel for how ancient and complex the Universe is.

In fact, the universe Jupiter creates is so interesting, I find myself agreeing with what James Berardinelli says in his review:

One of the key aspects of any science fiction or fantasy saga is world (or universe) building. This process refers to the creation and development of the reality in which the story transpires. More than mere background, it informs plot development, character motivation, and nearly everything that transpires during the course of the narrative. Jupiter Ascending, the latest eye-popping stepchild of the Wachowskis, excels at universe building. The problem is that the backstory is too large to contain what appears on screen during the course of a 127-minute motion picture. Put another way, Jupiter Ascending feels like a truncated, Cliffs Notes version of something that might have worked a lot better as a mini-series. Two hours is too short for this tale and the end result suffers greatly because of that restriction.

The more I’ve thought about this, the more I think James is onto something. Jupiter Ascending is an OK movie. But I think it would have made a great TV series. In a TV series, the narrative would have had time to sprawl. The characters could develop more naturally. The complex politics would have room to ebb and flow instead of being introduced with the subtlety of a bazooka and resolved with a repetitive series of last-minute rescues. Jupiter could have been introduced to the Galactic civilization gradually, with the layers peeling away bit by bit rather than being ripped off every 15 minutes.

Most importantly, a TV series would have solved the huge problem with the ending. There’s no way to talk about this without spoilers so don’t read this until after you’ve watched the movie or if you have no plans to.

The basic plot of the movie is that human beings originally evolved elsewhere and have, over the last few millions years, created a sprawling Galactic civilization. The elite in this civilization are able to live for thousands of years by consuming the life force of other humans. They have therefore created millions of farm planets around the Galaxy. They place human seeds on these planet, let them breed for a few dozen millennia and then harvest the resulting populace.

Earth is one of these planets. Jupiter suddenly becomes important because she is genetically identical to the dead matriarch of a powerful family that owns the Earth and its billions of inhabitants. Because of this civilization’s worship of genetics, they regard her as effectively being that matriarch reborn, completely with the rights to Earth. The movie then deals with her three “children” scheming to steal Earth away from her. She defeats them and then … goes back to Earth to live out her life scrubbing toilets (incorrectly I might add. Lift the lid before you scrub, Jupiter!).

Now think about how this might unfold in a TV series. Not only could this information be introduced more gradually and with far more character development, it doesn’t have to end on such a “huh, what?” note. The bulk of the series could concern Jupiter’s efforts, with her newfound power, to liberate the people being farmed to keep the elites immortal. In this struggle, she could realize that no one in the Galactic civilization will support her; but she has an army of quadrillions of people from these farm planets. It could be truly epic and give the universe the treatment it deserves.

We are desperately in need of a good sci-fi TV series. Doctor Who is basically the only thing going right now and, as far as I know, there’s nothing going on in space opera. I humbly submit that Jupiter Ascending could, if done right, immediately become one of the best things on television.

If it’s done right, of course.

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